An interview with Harry Roberts
Harry Roberts is a 22-year-old designer, developer, writer and speaker from the UK. He's a .net awards finalist and a member of Smashing Magazine’s Experts Panel. Presently, he's working as a Senior UI Developer for one of the UK’s biggest media and entertainment companies, BSkyB. In 2011 he created intuit.css, a powerful, scalable, Sass-based, BEM, OOCSS framework - the result of his years of specialism in CSS.
What do you do?
I’ve never really had an apt job title because I do a lot of not-very-much. I guess the closest I got was Front-end Architect, which is what I run with currently.
During the day, I am Senior UI Developer at BSkyB, based out of their Leeds offices. There I build all the front-end stuff for their online products, train/teach developers about (the importance of) scalable CSS, I also work on front-end performance, and mobile.
Outside of that I write and speak and build open-source stuff as CSS Wizardry (a name I picked ages ago, and now hate).
What was your earliest formative experience of the Internet?
You know, I have no idea… we didn’t get the Internet at home until I was like 15 (so 2005, really late). I never actually got the Internet in my bedroom whilst I was living with my parents, either.
One thing I do remember about my first foray into actually building websites was having to save A List Apart articles to a USB drive from the family computer and then take them upstairs to read offline—and build websites from—on my own, Internetless machine. If I wanted to read anything else I’d have to wait until it was my turn to use the Internet again!
Who taught you how to code?
No one person. I basically learnt to build websites through necessity (I volunteered to build a website for mine and my friend’s little graphic design partnership when we were like 16) and deconstructing things I found out in the wild. I always feel bad answering this question because I really don’t have an answer; I just used to Google things, read them, read things around them, pick apart other peoples’ code, rinse and repeat.
What are your favourite apps and resources?
I don’t have many. I could quite happily do most of my job with just Chrome, Spotify and Terminal (my text editor of choice is Vim and I couldn’t live without Git, both of which I run from the command line).
I don’t really have any resources as such… with so many people writing so much interesting, clever stuff, it’s a bit of a lost cause trying to find everything through one site. I just stick to Twitter, which I always have open. You find the best stuff gets shared on there by such a variety of people that you don’t have to rely a single resource.
Why did you specialise in CSS?
I have no idea. I love CSS, and I really enjoy specialising in it, because it is such a tricky, encumbered language. There is so much to know about it that most people just don’t that I find it a very useful specialism to have, and I know Sky feel the same. I think I just found myself able to make a lot of sense of it, and its oddities and quirks.
On the flip side, I really kick myself for never having learned JS. I think this is a lot of the problem with being self taught; you only focus on what you want to, and I wanted to immerse myself in CSS. This means that I’ve never committed to learning JS at all, which I regret.
How did you know that you wanted to be a Front-End Architect and UI Developer?
I moved to Sky and started working on much larger projects. Projects which net tens of millions of pounds for Sky, and projects that last for years. This new challenge opened up loads of possibilities for combining what I knew about CSS with what our engineers know about programming. I absolutely loved working out how to combine the two. A lot of my articles and talks deal with applying programming principles to CSS, and taking a more performance- and engineering-led approach to it. This is how I strayed into the realm of architecture and scalability.
"I really kick myself for never having learned JS. I think this is a lot of the problem with being self taught; you only focus on what you want to, and I wanted to immerse myself in CSS."
What's it like working at a big company like BSkyB?
It’s really… interesting.
It’s a huge company which hires fantastic developers, which is great. There are perks all over the place (gym membership, pool tables, tennis tables, bonuses, generous training schemes, departmental budgets for whatever (meals out, the pub!) and loads more…).
The flip side is that, as with any large corporate, you do see more and more red tape, and more big-business stuff that you might not see in an agency. Going from a small agency-like place to somewhere like Sky can be a shock to the system; things seem to take a little longer to get done as you have to talk to more people, for example.
I’ve been here two years now, so I’m totally over the initial learning curve.
How did you make the decision not to go to University?
My dad never thought I could make it as a web developer. Not through malice, he just didn’t really ‘get it’. When it came time to apply to universities I had already done a load of freelance work and was now working part-time after sixth form for a local agency, so I was pretty certain that uni would just hold me back.
My dad told me I had to apply for three university courses and three full-time agency jobs, so I did. I went to university interviews all over, but one that stood out for being quite good was Newcastle. I also got offered an interview—I was 17 at this point—at a place called Sense Internet, which had just been named the UK’s Agency of the Year.
I was interviewed at Sense by a guy called Tony Jacobs. I was petrified, sat in this gorgeous office in central Leeds, being asked about all sorts of stuff. However, it turned out to be the most laid back interview I’ve ever had for anything, and Tony offered me the job there and then. I pretty much bit his hand off. To this day, I still think that Tony was the biggest single factor in my career. Sure, he wouldn’t have offered me the job if I was no good, but to put that much faith in a mere 17 year old gave me exactly the springboard that I needed to get going. Sense was the best job I ever had in many ways, and some of my best friends, to this day, are people I met there. Sky have also snapped up a load of ex-Sense people now. They were all great designers/developers. I am so glad I got into Sense rather than going to university.
Interestingly enough, around the time I started at Sense, Newcastle University started recommending that their students use CSS Wizardry for learning front-end development. I literally could have been paying to teach myself.
What's the best advice you've received?
Hmm, I don’t really tend to do the whole advice thing, but there are two little phrases that I’ve been told by two awesome individuals that seem to say a lot without saying very much.
The first is something Oliver Reichenstein told me: Don’t do it for the money, but don’t do it for no money.
This speaks volumes to me. It’s so much wrapped up in such a short sentence. I love what I do, I do loads of open-source stuff and I write articles and code that I make freely available. I didn’t get into the web to be rich, and this is why I don’t mind giving stuff away for free. But… there’s a line you have to draw. There’s a big difference between open-source and having the p*ss taken out of you. I never got into the web for the money, but I know what I’m worth to the right people. I think what Oliver was saying was ‘don’t be greedy, but don’t be anyone’s fool’. Clever chap.
The second was said to me recently by Nicole Sullivan: You spend so long trying to change [something] that it ends up changing you.
And I think we all know what she means here. I know these things shouldn’t be based on age, but for someone so young, she’s very wise.
Who do you really admire?
I’m not really into the whole ‘inspiration’ stuff; I just like anyone who’s a nice person. Professionally, though, I do really rate loads of people. The stand out three, that are probably more relevant, are Nicole Sullivan, Jonathan Snook and Nicolas Gallagher. Very clever people.
What was your first job as a Developer?
My first actual task? Wow, I’m not sure. I think it was to build the website for a doctors in York. That was a while ago, and I have a terrible memory!
If you hired an apprentice, what would you be looking for?
Someone who can leave whatever they’ve been told previously at the door. Front-end development is so hampered by this pointless pursuit of ‘semantic classes’ and ‘clean markup’ that I’d have to be training someone who can forget all that old stuff and start thinking about building websites properly. Building websites to scale, being pragmatic, leaving behind this idea of ‘hand-crafting’. As Nicole Sullivan (<3 Nicole) said: our best practices are killing us.
"Don’t be greedy, but don’t be anyone’s fool."
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I have no idea! This is a question that worries me because this is all I can do!
I often joke that I’m gonna pack all this web stuff in and become a tree surgeon, but there is a hint of truth in that. I hate being indoors, so probably something outdoorsy. A Park Ranger at a massive national park; how awesome would that be?! Also, did you know there are people whose job it is to literally check on mountains?! I joked with a friend that my ideal job would just be to climb mountains for a living, just checking they’re okay still, and she found that there actually is that job! (I love winter mountain climbing, y’see.)
What makes you get out of bed every day?
My f*cking neighbour. Guy can’t close a door without slamming it :(